10 Apr 2021

Darren Byler: Big Brother vs China's Uighurs

From Saturday Morning, 9:40 am on 10 April 2021

Constant surveillance, cultural suppression and 're-education' are a day-to-day reality for the approximately 12 million Muslim minority Uighur people who live in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of northwest China.

Activists and UN rights experts accuse China of using torture, forced labour and sterilisations. China denies rights abuses in Xinjiang and says its camps provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.  

Technology has become a cornerstone of the government's control methods. Uighur are required by the police to carry their smartphones and IDs listing their ethnicity and are tracked by face surveillance checkpoints located at jurisdictional boundaries, entrances to religious spaces and transportation hubs. 

Members of the Muslim Uighur minority hold placards as they demonstrate in front of the Chinese consulate on 30 December 2020, in Istanbul, to ask for news of their relatives and to express their concern after China announced the ratification of an extradition treaty with Turkey.

Photo: AFP

University of Colorado anthropologist Darren Byler has been researching and writing about Uighur dispossession and also edits the website: The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia

Byler tells Kim Hill that there are border checks between every neighbourhood for Uighur’s.

“Imagine going to the airport and going through security and having your face scanned and matched 10 times a day, that’s what a Uighur person is confronted by. The state is tracking their movements in all aspects.”

He explains that the Uighur people traditionally had their own homeland – East Turkestan – in the 1930s and 1940s and have been regarded with suspicion as a potentially separatist group by China ever since.

“After 2001 and the global war on terror began – because the Uighurs are Muslim – that separatist suspicion was conflated with terrorism. If Uighurs protested certain forms of control, that was labelled terrorism.

“Eventually, in 2013 and 2014, there were some attacks carried out by Uighurs on Han civilians that did meet the markers of what’s internationally recognised as terrorism and that’s what sparked what the Chinese call ‘the people’s war on terror’ and this new surveillance system began to be built.”

Byler says that, while China has a right to protect its citizens from terrorism, what’s happened to Uighurs is not proportionate to the crimes that were carried out.

Darren Byler

Darren Byler Photo: supplied

“There’s perhaps several hundred people, maybe 1000 people, that are involved in supporting and carrying out those violent incidents. What the state is doing here is something they call a ‘de-extremification campaign’ which is preventative policing.

“It’s stopping people from practising Islam itself because they see Islam as the root cause of violence and separatism. It’s really about targeting an entire population of people rather than people that actually carry out crimes.”

A big technological element of Uighur oppression is facial recognition tech which first hit China in around 2014 to 2015.

“They’re used throughout China but, within the Uighur region, they’re being used at a much greater density – there’s just so many more cameras. On top of that, there’s these checkpoints where people’s IDs are checked so that gives the state a firm timestamp of where that person was in time and space.”

Added to that, around 10 to 15 percent of the Uighur adult population, or one in six adults, have been sent to ‘re-education camps’.

“Some of those camps have been closed so it’s likely that there’s slightly fewer numbers in camps, but it’s still a very significant number of people and increasing numbers of those who were in camps are now in prison or put into forms of forced labour.”

Byler says people put into camps tend to have been accused of breaches that don’t meet the level of criminality, for instance downloading WhatsApp on their phone or using a VPN on their computer browser.

Within the camps – which Byler says are really medium security prisons – the Uighur watch Chinese propaganda videos or go to fortified classrooms where they’re given Chinese language instruction.

“But most detainees said the educational component was really secondary and it was mostly about being in prison and being really scared."